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Wooster Group defies convention in latest multimedia effort

By David Sterritt / March 1, 1982

New York

Nestled on an unassuming street in the SoHo neighborhood of Manhattan, the Performing Garage has become a landmark to theatergoers looking for the new, the untried, and the adventurous. Recent activity has included premieres by the theater's resident company, the Wooster Group, as well as work by visiting artists.

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The most controversial has been the Wooster Group's latest major show, ''Route 1 & 9 (The Last Act).'' Directed by the leader of the troupe, Elizabeth LeCompte - in collaboration with the other members, whose remarkable performances are the show's most vital element - this is a typically bold and unpredictable evening of multimedia theater. Public attention has been diverted, however, by one facet of the complex and many-layered work: the fact that parts of it are performed by white actors wearing blackface makeup.

When these portions of the show were first unveiled in a series of ''work in progress'' performances, it seemed clear that they functioned as fierce attacks on racial stereotypes and lingering racist attitudes in American culture. When the work officially opened, however, certain critics attacked it for racism of its own. The situation intensified when the New York State Council on the Arts cut the group's funding by 43 percent, and specified that none of the aid could be used on ''Route 1 & 9,'' citing the work as racist in realization, if not intent.

While the troupe receives other funding from the National Endowment for the Arts and private contributions from Bankers Trust, the New York State action was a heavy blow. As a genuinely noncommercial troupe, committed to artistic integrity rather than box-office profits, the Wooster Group is financially strapped even in the best of times. Moreover, the charge of racism seems misdirected - in view of the material itself, and the company's profoundly humanistic leanings in such past works as ''Sakonnet Point'' and ''Rumstick Road.'' Slashed funds and critical brickbats seem harsh reprisals for the miscalculation (if such it is) of attacking racist attitudes on their own grounds, with the eminently theatrical weapons of satire and sarcasm.

Meanwhile, the show has caught on with audiences, helped by favorable word of mouth from viewers and positive notices from some discerning critics. Its engagement has already been extended more than once, giving ''Route 1 & 9'' a solid niche in Wooster Group history. This doesn't mean it's an easy work to fathom, though. It is complicated, and operates on many levels. Like everything else directed by Miss LeCompte, moreover, it is concerned less with plot and character than with themes, patterns, and visual arrangements. There's more of architecture than of drama to it, though it builds a strong sense of theatrical tension, and its energy is downright astonishing.

The show begins in an upstairs room of the Performing Garage, where the audience watches a hilarious ''educational film'' about the classic drama ''Our Town,'' by Thornton Wilder. Armed with its earnest platitudes - and intermittent truths - about the virtues of small-town life and well-made plays, the spectators then troop downstairs to the main auditorium. Here a couple of blindfolded men do a slapstick job of setting the stage for a performance of ''Our Town,'' while two women make unrehearsed ''live'' phone calls to people outside the theater. In the next section, the performers reenact a comedy routine originated and made popular by the black entertainer Pigmeat Markham. The show culminates in a surreal climax: The bittersweet last act of ''Our Town'' is performed as a soap opera on TV monitors, while the cast members have an increasingly chaotic party - counterpointing Wilder's homey vision with a sardonic evocation of the darker, dingier ''our towns'' that inhabit the back corners of American culture and thought.